A swift moving worlds-within-worlds urban fantasy, tinged with teenaged romance and insecurities aplenty.
The tale is told from the first-person present-tense viewpoint of almost-18-year-old Eliyana. Eli is a New York City native (or so she thinks), who is reeling from the recent death of her mother… along with the strange fact that she’s fallen under the legal guardianship of her best friend and neighbor—who she is desperately and unrequitedly in love with. As if her current circumstances weren’t difficult enough, Eli is nearly friendless and plagued by low self-esteem—both of which a direct result of her having an intricate birthmark stamped across one side of her face.
What I Liked:
Author Sara Ella’s urban debut is reminiscent of a blend between Julie Kagawa's Iron Fae series (minus the iron allergy) and Square/Ubi's Kingdom Hearts (minus the obvious Disney references.) Which is an interesting strategy, if it was intentional--combining the essence of a book and video game. It’s not something I’ve seen done before. And in this reader’s perception, it offers advantages to both the plot and the action scenes.
The classic good vs. evil struggle was acknowledged and clearly represented in the concepts of the Verity and Void. And the corruption of character that results in the “Soulless” doesn’t leave much room for confusion. I particularly appreciated the rules behind the process and the limitations regarding children.
Despite my general dislike of love-triangles—especially in combination with the “bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold” trope—I genuinely grew to like the competing anti-hero figure. As depth was layered on, he actually became my favorite out of the entire cast. (Although the unlikely husband/wife duo introduced partway through was also a highlight—if only for the stereotype breakaway.) And despite my usual hesitation over present-tense telling, Ella pulled off the style competently.
The map at the front of the book makes for a great side-by-side visual of the “reflections,” and came in handy at several points as world building and hopping eventually ensued.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
-Holy product placement, Batman!
I can’t recall ever seeing so many name brands brought up so often in even a standard contemporary. (Seriously, I'd be surprised if the author wasn't receiving some sort of kickback from Ugg boots.) It’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of writing, but it may distract readers who pick up on this sort of thing.
-Initially the detail about Eli being a vegetarian is interesting and novel--as it was one of the only personal things we get to learn about her before being launched into the action. But it took until the last quarter of the book to learn WHY she avoids meat... which turns out to be a sanctimonious-sounding "eww it had a face; how could anyone possibly..." mentality. I was hoping for more complexity to her, but it ultimately felt more like an afterthought than an enriching thread.
-I'm going to have to call extreme negligence on Eli's mom. She fled to a dangerous alternate world with her infant child, knowing an evil king would be hunting her and knowing full well when a "Guardian" moved in next door to monitor her. Yet she didn't bother warning or prepping Eli about ANYTHING. No fairy stories she'd later realize were true... no basic self-defense classes so she wouldn't be painfully helpless when her past eventually caught up to her... nothing. Not even a hopeful (if fantastical) explanation as to why the facial birthmark/tattoo made Eli special rather than freakish. Everyone acts as if she was safer not knowing anything about her origins, but there’s no evidence that this is the case. (It’s quite to the contrary in every respect.) Eli is clearly in far more danger due to her overwhelming ignorance and lack of anything to draw on for information.
-I’m also afraid I can't say I was a fan of how fast Eli is invented her own realm-based colloquialisms. It would have made more sense if we'd heard her exposed to them courtesy of the native characters, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The behavior appears to have developed without gradual organic adoption, and so feels rather forced.
Note: Those looking for cleaner, less objectionable content than market standard are likely to be pleased with this pick. While difficult subjects are touched on, the handling is subtle—nothing I could look back on and consider gratuitous or triggering.
For a debut book, the author shows a lot of potential. I look forward to checking out her progress once she has a few more works under her belt.